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Kidsburgh Mental Health Guide: Where parents can access community services

Photo above by Hannah Busing on Unsplash.

In a recent Kidsburgh survey of 730 Pittsburgh-area parents, one-third said they have sought mental health treatment for their kids. 

But while 80 percent of parents told us they were very aware or at least somewhat aware of where they might go for help if their children needed it, nearly 20 percent said they didn’t know where to turn for support. 

Fortunately, there are many good — and in many cases free — sources of mental health support in Pittsburgh. 

As always with any health concern, it’s valuable to reach out to your pediatrician first to share what’s happening with your child and seek your doctor’s advice. Parents are also encouraged to reach out to their child’s school for mental health support — schools are willing and able to help. 

In Kidsburgh’s recent survey of 260 school employees, one educator told us they wished parents knew that mental health is as important — if not more important — than academics. And getting help, despite parents’ fears about the stigma of mental health issues, is an act of strength rather than weakness. 

Beyond pediatricians and schools, there are many different resources for mental health support for kids, teens and families in our region. 

Local organizations for treatment of and support with mental health issues

Steel Smiling is a great source of mental health support for Pittsburgh’s Black community. “We offer therapeutic resources to African-American individuals for free of charge,” says Denita Parrish, a community mental health advocate and certified in Mental Health First Aid trainer, and a member of the Steel Smiling team.

The organization also has a Mental Health Workforce Development Program called Beams to Bridges, which equips Black children, youth and families to serve as Community Mental Health Workers.  

Steel Smiling hosts an annual event in September (which is Suicide Prevention Month) where community members, local leaders and mental health professionals gather to share conversations about suicide prevention and awareness. They also offer training each year during May (Mental Health Awareness Month) to bring the community together to learn and implement best practices together. 

Pittsburgh Mercy is another great community resource, which the team at Steel Smiling often recommends.

“They’re the premier behavioral health resource for children,” says Parrish. 

Whether a family needs outpatient therapy or help with a child’s behavioral health or mental health diagnosis, or a parent just needs someone to talk to about mental health concerns, Parrish says, the staff at Pittsburgh Mercy “can do an intake assessment, and then ask a parent what type of help they’re looking for.”

Pittsburgh Mercy offers many behavioral health programs and services to support children, adolescents, and families. Services range from outpatient behavioral health (mental health) treatment and recovery services, to medication-only services and also residential programs for times when a higher level of care and more intensive treatment may be needed. 

Some services are available in-person, others by virtual visits, and Mercy also offers services in many local school districts.

And while Pittsburgh Mercy accepts most major insurance coverage, they can work with families who don’t have insurance to help them apply to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and access other resources. Visit Pittsburgh Mercy’s Child & Adolescent Services page for more information or call 412-323-8026.

AHN’s Center for Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents is another powerful resource in Pittsburgh for helping kids through emotional challenges, says Dr. Gary Swanson, program director of psychiatry residency training at Allegheny General Hospital

The Center offers innovative approaches to treatment and aims to get young people seen by a doctor or other therapist as quickly as possible. It can be challenging since there are a limited number of behavioral health providers who work with children in the Pittsburgh area. But their goal is to provide care as quickly as possible. 

Another great resource in the Pittsburgh area is Highmark Caring Place, which offers free help with grief and loss to adults and children. The Caring Place, which has locations in Pittsburgh and north of the city in Cranberry (as well as Erie and Harrisburg), has a range of support groups and connects kids and teens with people their own age who have had similar experiences. It can be very powerful for a young person to realize they’re not alone in feeling sadness, pain and grief. 

And LGBTQ kids and teens, or those who are exploring questions of sexual identity and gender, can find support and a caring community at the Persad Center (which offers outpatient individual therapy and a range of community programs including a teen night) or through PFLAG Pittsburgh. And trans or nonbinary young people can find support through SisTersPGH and its offshoot organization BroThersPGH. Teens from as far away as Lawrence and Fayette counties come to Pittsburgh for support at Persad, PFLAG and SisTers. 

The national Trevor Project is another great resource for LGBTQ young people and their families. 

National resources for treatment and information about mental health

Dr. Laura Voigt, a pediatrician at UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics-Bass Wolfson, often refers parents to the website healthychildren.org, which is run by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It offers a range of information about child development and emotional wellness, as well as articles about family interaction

For younger children, the Association for Play Therapy offers information about the benefits of play therapy and a director of local practitioners trained in this approach.

For older children, Mental Health First Aid training for teens (and adults) is offered by the National Council of Behavioral Mental Health. Students learn to identify, understand and respond to signs and symptoms of mental health or substance-use issues among their friends and peers. And that learning can help them keep themselves mentally healthy, as well. 

At the moment, Mental Health First Aid training can’t be offered in person, due to COVID-19. But plans are in the works to offer virtual training sessions

So ask your child’s school if they provide Mental Health First Aid training to staff members and/or students (some schools in our region do). And if they don’t, ask the school if they will add this training in the future. 

Another valuable resource: The local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which offers educational events and programs.

Digital resources available to everyone

Local mental health experts also tell us that many young people are open to “telehealth” video appointments with therapists and with mental health support from apps. So if your child is resistant about meeting in person with a therapist, discuss this option with them. They can have therapy sessions in the privacy of your home and interact using the digital device they are most comfortable with. 

Our experts also recommend several digital apps that can be effective in helping young people: 

Calm and Headspace are two apps that introduce young people to meditation and mindfulness. You can try both for free, though they do offer further levels of paid content. 

For younger kids, Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ffic Feelings, which follows the popular Daniel Tiger character from Mister Rogers Neighborhood as he learns to understand and manage his feelings, and build social-emotional skills. 

And here’s one fun — and deliberately non-digital — resource: The Family Spinner is a game that encourages kids to share their feelings and open up about their experiences while having dinner or hanging out with family members. Co-created by two Pittsburgh mothers, Ilana Schwarcz and Dr. Deborah Gilboa (known locally as “Dr. G”), the game is available for purchase on the website for $9.95. 

Local organizations for building strong mental health in kids  

The Boys and Girls Club and the Sarah Heinz House offer programs where kids can learn new skills, make friends and feel welcome. These experiences can help young people build a sense of competence and confidence, which helps build their mental wellness, says Megan McGraw,  a behavioral health specialist at UPMC Children’s Community Pediatrics-Bass Wolfson.

Free online classes can also help a child find an interest or hobby that grows their sense of competence and confidence, says McGraw. The goal of these hobbies isn’t the accomplishment itself. Instead, it’s about building knowledge and pride as someone with a growing expertise.  

The Mentoring Partnership is also a great resource for helping kids build strong connections and experience community support. 

One more free method for getting in touch with feelings and building resilience:  writing down or recording what you’re experiencing. Dr. Voigt suggests asking kids to help you record the history of what’s happened during 2020 by keeping a written journal of their experiences and feelings about this year or recording their thoughts. 

Welcome to the Kidsburgh Mental Health Resource Guide. Looks for additional guides: the warning signs of mental health difficulties in kids, how your school can help and the meaning of mental health in kids.

For more Kidsburgh stories about mental health, click here

This guide is part of the Kidsburgh Mental Health Series, funded by a grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation. The Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of people who live with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. The Foundation’s vision is to invest in a future where behavioral health is understood, supported, and accepted.